The World Beyond Amherst through Books

frost library

When I say I want to learn about everything, I mean literally everything. Until I began working as a student assistant at Frost Library this semester, the idea of reading for pleasure outside of my academic classes never occurred to me. While shelving and pulling out books, from the cultural history of facial hair to the implications of the term “slut,” I would often find myself distracted by certain titles, stopping here and there to sit down on the floor in the middle of an aisle and become deeply absorbed by a book or two.

I was aimlessly walking through a new world of ideas I could just “pick up,” without having to attend a class or watch the Discovery Channel. According to the school website, Amherst College has more than 1,400,000 volumes and more than 595,296 other media materials under its possession, and that’s probably not even including the materials that also circulate between Amherst AND the other four colleges every day. When I work at Frost on Wednesdays, managing the Five College incoming deliveries, I often need to use two book trucks at a time to organize all of the books requested among students in the five colleges. That’s a lot of heavy carrying! What’s most amazing is how easy it is to forget the myriad resources available both in and out of the classroom here at Amherst. But I digress.

My routine exploration of the bookshelves in Frost is a time for me to freely read about my non- academic interests without any time constraints. In other words, this form of extracurricular activity is not yet another “block” of time in my calendar—it is not a dreaded group meeting on my to-do list that I feel obligated to attend because I need a new bullet point under the experience section on my resume.

Instead, it is my way of saying, for once in my college career, “I refuse to be limited by Amherst’s disappointing range of clubs.” And no, I’m not saying that there should be a club dedicated to those who want to explore (and probably end up playing hide and seek just for shits and giggles) the aisles in Frost’s B and C levels. What I’m saying is that since my freshman year, I’ve been struggling to find clubs on this campus that align with some of my interests, especially within the arts community here.

For example, I am fascinated by street art and the public spaces where it is found, specifically in New York City. Having been raised there, it is no surprise that every experience riding the subway between Brooklyn and Manhattan every morning brings with it a new mural or tag-up to try and decipher. But that’s just me and my tendency to recognize obscure shit as worthy of being analyzed and discussed. Hence why I almost collapsed on my knees and shed tears of joy when I discovered a small collection of books on the history of graffiti on B-level, as well as several books on hip hop/ rap music and its strong tendencies towards social justice during the late 1970s, 80s and 90s. However, I have yet to find a club or a group of students who feel as passionately about these topics as I do. For this reason, there are times when I wish I could acquire knowledge by my own means rather than through the social structures and time constraints of a college education. Where are the radical poetry slams and campus-wide arts events—where is the Amherst arts community aside from the Marsh House? It’s cool that the Marsh Arts House, according to its constitution exists to “provide a supportive working atmosphere for student artists, and to foster the presence of arts on the campus.” But why is it so far removed from the rest of campus?

But you see, the problem is that I really do want to learn about everything through the liberal arts, and this idea has never become so evident to me until now, in my sophomore year. Could it be Biddy whispering in my ear at night that I must live a “life of consequence” after living in an intellectual community that “cultivates the mind”? Or could it be that I am finally guiltily experiencing the effects of a liberal arts education after having taken too many courses in different departments before settling on the American Studies major just a week and a half ago?I don’t know the answers to these questions, but one thing that I surely know is that if you are interested in learning more about something that you feel you cannot relate to other students on campus, cannot find in the course offerings or in the weekly e-Digest, make a trip to Frost and look it up under the library selection. I’m sure that you’ll find a book or two, or even someone in the Five Colleges (if you decide to take a five-college course or attend an off- campus event) who cares about that topic just as much as you do. You won’t believe the amount of people I’ve spoken to who have never taken a five-college course because of feeling obligated to complete all coursework at Amherst. Don’t be sucked in by the Amherst bubble—explore the communities beyond this campus, even if it means starting in the bookshelves of Frost.